UNH researchers create radiation sensor for space

University of New Hampshire researchers have designed a sensor for orbiting weather satellites to help protect astronauts and technology from radiation in space.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire created this Energy Heavy Ion Sensor.
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire created this Energy Heavy Ion Sensor. (University of New Hampshire)

“This is the first time UNH has been involved in building an instrument for a satellite, and we were particularly pleased to be able to build a new type of instrument for the weather satellite,” said Clifford Lapote, one of the scientists who worked on the project.

Seven engineers and two scientists from the university’s Space Science Center created an ion sensor that can detect higher radiation in space, Lapote said. The sensors were placed on weather satellites and launched into space from Florida on Saturday.


“Space is filled with the nuclei of every type of element that exists, from protons through uranium,” Lopate said. “Those are moving with significant energy.”

These atoms deposit energy in any surface they move through, which creates higher levels of radiation that can be dangerous to people and electronic systems.

“We are shielded from what’s going on in space by the earth’s atmosphere,” Lopate said. “But out in space there’s no shielding. The particles are moving around and a space suit or a space station can’t stop the particles from going through them.”

Lopate said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association had requested an ion sensor to protect astronauts or equipment in space.

“There can be quite a lot of radiation, and when that happens the likelihood of damage to instruments and people go way up,” he said. “Part of space weather, which is what our instrument is involved in, is monitoring and predicting the level of energizing radiation.”

Lapote said if the instrument is able to provide warnings during periods of elevated radiation, it can help protect anything floating in space.

“We give those warnings so that sensitive parts of instruments can be turned off or so people could get into space stations so they are shielded,” Lapote said.


Olivia Quintana can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @oliviasquintana.